Let’s help wild animals affected by the Kaziranga floods
December 31 2022, Aditya S. K.
Impact of increased flooding due to climate change
The annual floods in 2022 have been devastating to the inhabitants of the state of Assam, with over 30 districts and 45 lakh people affected by flood water inundation due to the monsoon rains and overflowing of the rivers running across the state. Animals (including both domesticated and wild) have also suffered substantially during and after floods, as many of them drowned in the flood water, got displaced, or were injured by both natural factors and anthropogenic conflict. Especially in the regions of Kaziranga National Park, animals face serious harm every year when most of the park area becomes inundated with water. The number of floods in India rose to 90 in the 10-year period from 2006 to 2015, up from 67 in the 10 years between 1996 to 2005, according to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction. . Even worse, an increase of the flood risk in the Indian subcontinent is expected, where the multi-day flood events are projected to increase at a faster rate in the future than the single day events. The strong implication this has on the wellbeing of humans is well known. But there is less discussion of its impact on the wellbeing of nonhuman animals .
The plight of wild animals during floods
While attention has been given to the effect of floods from the standpoint of damage to the ecosystem, there is much less information available about the effect of floods on the welfare of individual wild animals during and after the event. A flood is a stressful event for animals that triggers physiological, endocrine, and behavioral responses as a result of an evolutionary adaptation for survival. Apart from the physiological harm, floods involve discomfort, fear, and distress in animals. 
Animals living in the wild suffer harm due to different factors during floods. While some of them are human-caused harms such as poaching, injuries, or deaths from vehicular accidents along NH-37 highway, where many wild animals migrating across the natural highlands of the Karbi Anglong hills to escape the flood waters can be hit by vehicles, this situation is worsened by the commercial establishments and mining activities across the nine corridors meant to facilitate movement of the animals to the hills. It is also important to note how the animals suffer due to natural causes that result from floods, for instance, the grazing animals in the Kaziranga National Park reportedly suffered severely from shortage of fodder during flood situation as all the grasslands are submerged under water. At times, the submerging of undergrowth of the forested areas during high floods and the deposition of excess silt results in shortage of beels (marshy water bodies) and short grass, and a corresponding increase in long grass. As a result, grazing animals suffer from malnutrition and a shortage of food.
Moreover, while escaping the flood waters, animals in the wild are also at increased risk of getting infected by diseases such as foot and mouth disease, rabies, haemorrhagic septicaemia, anthrax, and other zoonotic diseases due to weakened immunity and increased contact with animals kept in farms. The shortage of resources also leads to increase in both intra- and inter-species competition for food and shelter. This, combined with weakened immune system, makes them highly vulnerable to predation and death from other harms. Juvenile mortality is especially high for invertebrates, aquatic animals, and animals that live in burrows (as their exit is blocked off by the flood water). Animals do evolve adaptations to survive the floods, for example, some fish species have developed morphological and physiological adaptations to low oxygen availability during floods, and larger land animals display behavior to cope with the floods such as migrating to natural highlands and reduced appetite. However, it is reasonable to assume that due to the erratic pattern of flooding and the difficult conditions that the floods create, many wild animals in and around Kaziranga suffer tremendously during these disasters.
Fortunately, there are many ways wild animals can be helped, including rescues carried out by institutions or individuals, vaccination programs, artificial shelters, wild animal hospitals and orphanages.
All hope is not lost
As we have seen, a great number of animals undergo a lot of distress due to floods every year, and this number is expected to dramatically increase in the following decades, which makes it a highly pressing issue to address. Fortunately, there are many ways wild animals can be helped, including rescues carried out by institutions or individuals, vaccination programs, artificial shelters, wild animal hospitals and orphanages. While the primary recipients of aid provided are mainly for the flood-affected humans (or the animals they use as resources), there are also multiple initiatives by some wild animal organizations and forest authorities that try to rescue and rehabilitate as many wild animals as they can. While the animals that are mainly helped are the ones that are considered valuable based on conservationist interests, the existing research and rescue infrastructure presents a promising opportunity to improve the wellbeing of other animals affected by disasters. Let us look at some of the measures that can be implemented to improve the assistance to wild animals during or post floods:
- Construction of improved artificial highlands to offer temporary relief to animals: The government of Assam and the Forest department have constructed Artificial Elevated Highlands to supplement the 20km natural highlands in offering refuge to the animals trying to escape from the flood waters during the annual floods . Artificial highlands are elevated lands structures constructed that mimic the natural highlands to offer a refuge to animals who are tired from swimming. Although this intervention has raised concerns among many conservationists about the ecological effects of such structures, they have been observed to have highly benefited the escaping animals. However, more research needs to be done regarding their long-term effects.
- Including wild animal protection during disasters into national and state policies: India is one of the first countries to integrate animals into its national disaster management plans, working closely with animal protection organizations. Such plans are central to protecting animals on a large scale.
- The National Policy on Disaster Management of India has a section dedicated to animal care in Chapter 7-Response: “Animals both domestic and wild are exposed to the effects of natural and man-made disasters. It is necessary to devise appropriate measures to protect animals and find means to shelter and feed them during disasters and their aftermath, through a community effort, to the extent possible”. This needs to be combined with strict enforcement on the local and national levels. Animals are included in India’s national disaster management plan, however not all state, district, and village level plans include animal protection provisions. Also, there needs to be community level planning along with villagers and different stakeholders to ensure that there is preparedness and knowledge shared regarding handling of wild animals and ensuring safe passage to the animals during their migration away from the flood water.
- Clearing and protecting the wildlife corridors from commercial activity: The growth of commercial establishments and illegal mining and quarrying along the corridors has seriously disturbed the ability of animals to escape from floods. These corridors are vital pathways that help animals escape the flooded park region into the surrounding hills. While there have been recent orders passed by the Courts to clear these establishments, this has caused a conflict between the residents of these areas and the authorities. It is imperative to find effective ways to relocate these residents to secure a safer pathway for the animals.
- Vaccinating surrounding animals on farms: It is also important to vaccinate domesticated animals adjoining the park against diseases that can be transmitted to wild animals while they are escaping the flood waters. There is an urgent need to train and build capacity for more veterinary staff to be able to treat and manage the huge number of animals. Organizations like World Animal Protection, Wildlife Conservation Trust and Corbett Foundation India have supported the national park by donating equipment to the dispensaries, providing support during immunization drives, and constructing elevated grounds to store fodder for animals on farms during floods.
- Investing in better animal rescue and rehabilitation capabilities: Given the large number of affected animals and worsening floods, there is a gaping need for better and improved technologies such as transportation including speed boats and aircrafts to facilitate better treatment of animals, monitoring devices such as camera traps, drones, and quadcopters to identify crucial locations to build animal shelters and find routes for rescue and relief operations during the disaster.
These are just some of the ways these animals can be helped. These measures combined with the recent advancements in technology such as the use of artificial intelligence and deep learning provide a valuable opportunity to invent innovative ways to improve the lives of wild animals in the Kaziranga National park. Since there is very little research done to understand the impact of floods on the welfare of animals in the wild, it is important to address the gaps in current research and advocacy efforts to facilitate better understanding and pursuit of more work in helping wild animals during floods.
It is also key to promote concern for wild animals and research about the situation they are in from the perspective of their wellbeing and suffering.
- V. Chandrashekar, ‘As the Monsoon and Climate Shift, India Faces Worsening Floods’<https://e360.yale.edu/features/as-the-monsoon-and-climate-shift-india-faces-worsening-floods> accessed on 1 November 2022
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- Animal Ethics, ‘Animals in natural disasters’ <https://www.animal-ethics.org/animals-natural-disasters/> accessed on December 5 2022
- A. Borah, ‘Flood threatens Kaziranga’ <https://www.downtoearth.org.in/news/flood-threatens-kaziranga-41580> accessed on 15 August 2022
- SK. Hamilton. “Wetlands of Large Rivers: Flood plains.” In: Likens GE, Ed. Encyclopedia of Inland Waters. Oxford: Academic Press. p 607–10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/B978-012370626-3.00065-X
- A. Rahman. “Kaziranga’s artificial highlands: Not the ‘real’ solution” <https://india.mongabay.com/2019/08/kazirangas-artificial-highlands-not-the-real-solution/> accessed on 13 December 2021
- World Animal Protection, “Case Studies- India” [accessed on 30 September 2021]